Change – or more of the same?

It’s the Environment, Stupid

The phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” was made popular by former President Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville during Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush, and referred to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently undergone a recession.

Currently, everyone in Washington, D.C., and across the nation is gearing up for the 2012 election cycle. It’s a green energy world we currently live and work in, and regardless of the merits of coal, uranium, geothermal, gas shales – and the list goes on – what we have learned over the years, and notably over the past few years, is that environmental concerns can determine, more often than not, whether our profession and industry is successful or not.

On a large scale, one simply has to refer back to the Deepwater Horizon spill and aftermath, whose repercussions continue to adversely impact the industry, the environment and the economy.

However, it does not take a large spill to make the point that we live in an environmentally conscious world.

In the pursuit of energy, the unconventional and alternative energy resources arena is especially susceptible to what I commonly refer to as environmental drivers.

You may recall a case of enhanced geothermal development in Switzerland in December 2009. Enhanced geothermal essentially relies on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to fracture bedrock and then circulates water through the cracks to produce steam, which in turn is utilized to produce electricity. However, by its very nature, fracking can create earthquakes, albeit mostly of small magnitude.

In 2010, litigation was brought against a geologist involved with an enhanced geothermal project for inducing some 30 earthquakes – the largest a magnitude 3.4 – through drilling and injecting pressurized water into rocks five kilometers below the surface. Damage to buildings in the region was estimated at $9 million.

Although acquitted, the enhanced geothermal project was terminated. The Swiss case had significant ramifications, and sent a shot over the bow to those in favor of enhanced geothermal, previously considered a clean and virtually limitless energy source.

In the United States, the Department of Energy had provided more than $100 million for enhanced geothermal. One of the big projects was the AltaRock Energy project in my large backyard called The Geysers, about 160 kilometers north of San Francisco.

The Geysers comprise the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, and supply one-fifth of the renewable energy produced in California.

The AltaRock project is – in hindsight, was – President Obama’s first major test to advance geothermal energy generation. The Geysers’ geothermal fields are lined with active faults, and minor earthquakes have been induced by the geothermal operations there.

In December 2009, immediately following the shutdown of the project in Switzerland, AltaRock Energy removed its drill rig and informed the government that the project would be abandoned.

The liabilities associated with the subsurface fracturing of rock present a significant setback in our search for renewable energy – thus the efforts for more renewable energy obviously will be hampered and derailed with these legal setbacks.

Geothermal isn’t the only form of energy under attack. Another recent case centers on whether drilling a natural gas well caused four small earthquakes – none above magnitude 2.8 – in the vicinity of Cleburne, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth. It did not help that one of the earthquakes occurred during the meeting of the city council while holding an emergency session to discuss this very topic.

The alleged culprit is either fracking or reinjecting wastewater back into a depleted well, which is what one study found.

What happened in Texas did not stay in Texas, as similar episodes are found in Pennsylvania, New York and other parts of the Northeast, as well as California. Fracking was deemed exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but renewed interest on the impact of fracking on water quality is being re-evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency and at the state level as well.

Following the Deepwater Horizon incident, the “Ragin’ Cajun” was expounding:

“And it just looks like he’s not involved in this! Man, you have got to get down here and take control of this! ... Put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving! We’re about to die down here!”

Environmental concerns drive energy policy, and policy drives the conventional, unconventional and alternative energy resources, regardless of the merits. How successful we geoscientists will be in developing a national energy strategy that is reasonable and sound depends on how well we communicate with the public, policy makers and the environmental community at large.

Thus, we have a fundamental decision before us, and in the words of Carville, “Change versus more of the same.”

Comments (0)


Division Column-EMD Stephen M. Testa

Stephen M. Testa is EMD President-Elect. He is currently serving as Executive Officer of the California State Mining and Geology Board since August, 2005. Testa is a Past-President of the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), the AIPG and the Los Angeles Basin Geological Society.

Division Column-EMD

The Energy Minerals Division (EMD), a division of AAPG, is dedicated to addressing the special concerns of energy resource geologists working with energy resources other than conventional oil and gas, providing a vehicle to keep abreast of the latest developments in the geosciences and associated technology. EMD works in concert with the Division of Environmental Geosciences to serve energy resource and environmental geologists.

View column archives

See Also: Book

Desktop /Portals/0/images/_site/AAPG-newlogo-vertical-morepadding.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 22282 Book
Desktop /Portals/0/images/_site/AAPG-newlogo-vertical-morepadding.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 4387 Book

See Also: CD DVD

Desktop /Portals/0/images/_site/AAPG-newlogo-vertical-morepadding.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 4036 CD-DVD

See Also: DL Abstract

The enhanced production of unconventional hydrocarbons, the mitigation of biosourcing, and the advancement of carbon capture and storage, now combine to create significant financial and technical challenges to the global oil and gas industry.  Emerging and especially promising Geobiology approaches to these issues include utilization of the physical and biogeochemical activity of microorganisms that inhabit deeply buried hydrocarbon reservoirs.

Desktop /Portals/0/images/_site/AAPG-newlogo-vertical-morepadding.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 11396 DL Abstract

See Also: Environmental Geosciences Article

We use sediment ages and mercury (Hg) concentrations to estimate past and future concentrations in the South River, Virginia, where Hg was released between 1930 and 1950 from a manufacturing process related to nylon production. In a previous study, along a 40 km (25 mi) reach, samples were collected from 26 of 54 fine-grained deposits that formed in the lee of large wood obstructions in the channel and analyzed for grain size, Hg concentration, and organic content. We also obtained radiometric dates from six deposits. To create a history that reflects the full concentration distribution (which contains concentrations as high as 900 mg/kg [900 ppm]), here, we treat the deposits as a single reservoir exchanging contaminated sediments with the overlying water column, and assume that the total sediment mass in storage and the distribution of sediment ages are time invariant. We use reservoir theory to reconstruct the annual history of Hg concentration on suspended sediment using data from our previous study and new results presented here. Many different reconstructed histories fit our data. To constrain results, we use information from a well-preserved core (and our estimate of the total mass of Hg stored in 2007) to specify the years associated with the peak concentration of 900 mg/kg. Our results indicate that around 850 kg (1874 lb) of Hg was stored in the deposits between 1955 and 1961, compared to only 80 kg (176 lb) today. Simulations of future Hg remediation suggest that 100-yr timescales will be needed for the South River to remove Hg-contaminated sediments from the channel perimeter through natural processes.
Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/hero-EG-Journal-21-1-2014.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 5780 Environmental Geosciences Article